New York Times: Audit Reveals Glaring Mismanagement at Nassau Jail (12-17-04)

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December 17, 2004

Audit Reveals Glaring Mismanagement at Nassau Jail

By PATRICK O’GILFOIL HEALY

An audit by the Nassau County comptroller has revealed soaring overtime costs and chronic mismanagement at the county’s jail, prompting some county legislators to demand that the sheriff step down or be fired.

The audit, released on Thursday morning, found that overtime costs at the Nassau County Correctional Center had nearly doubled over four years, to $20 million in 2003 from $10.3 million in 2000. Last year, 32 correction officers earned more than $50,000 each in overtime pay.

The audit directly rebuked the sheriff, Edward Reilly, his undersheriff and a deputy undersheriff for racking up thousands of hours of compensatory time, apparently in violation of county regulations. Nassau rules prohibit the officers from receiving comp time unless there are ”extraordinary circumstances.” Since 2000, Sheriff Reilly authorized his own overtime and claimed 266 compensatory days as payment for extra work, the audit found. Sidney Head, the deputy undersheriff, claimed 330 comp days. John Maguire, the undersheriff, claimed 253.

Joseph Scannell, a Democrat and chairman of the County Legislature’s public-safety committee, said the audit showed systemic management problems at the jail, and called the comp-time practices ”personally damning” for Sheriff Reilly.

”I’m calling for him to step down now, as of today,” Mr. Scannell said. ”This was a basic, fundamental breakdown in his ability to manage the facility. He’s failed his obligations to the people of Nassau County. It’s so bad. It’s so egregious.”

The Nassau County executive, Thomas R. Suozzi, who has the power to hire and fire the sheriff, declined to say yesterday that Mr. Reilly should step down. But Legislator Judy Jacobs, the Democratic majority leader, said that the sheriff had improved safety and the treatment of prisoners at the jail and should stay on to help correct the problems identified by the audit.

Sheriff Reilly was out of the office on Thursday afternoon and could not be reached for comment. The sheriff’s chief of staff, John O’Connor, said that overtime costs had soared because the jail staff was cut despite growth in the inmate population.

In 2000, the jail had 1,306 employees and 1,337 inmates, the audit found. Three years later, there were 138 fewer employees but 245 more inmates.

”It all washes out in the end,” Mr. O’Connor said. ”That’s where the overtime has gone to.”

In a response to the audit, David Kondrup, the deputy undersheriff for human resources, wrote that correction officials had already begun making some changes, including improved tracking of overtime and tightening time-off policies for bereavement and military leave — areas criticized in the audit.

Nassau County’s comptroller, Howard Weitzman, acknowledged in the audit that safety conditions had improved at the jail. In 1999, two guards beat an inmate to death, an event that spotlighted claims of rampant prisoner abuse and brought the jail under federal oversight, which remains in place.

Sheriff Reilly was appointed in 2000 by the previous county executive, Thomas S. Gulotta, a Republican. Federal evaluations have since praised safety improvements at the jail.

Despite that, Mr. Weitzman said, ”There has been a massive administrative failure in the jail.”

Employees took time off seemingly at will, the audit found. Some took a paid day off to serve for an hour as volunteer firefighters. One employee took 20 bereavement days in two years. When an employee was denied a request to take a comp day, he simply took a bereavement day instead, the audit found.

The jail’s personnel unit was ”in disarray” and did not review overtime claims, the audit said. In a single two-week pay period, the comptroller’s office found 10 duplicate overtime entries while monitoring the jail’s payroll. The duplicate entries were not paid.

The top overtime recipient last year was an officer who worked in the jail’s transportation unit. He was paid $118,330 in overtime in addition to his base salary of $79,130, for a total of $197,460. He was followed by an officer in one of the jail’s recreation units who was paid $93,535 in overtime and a salary of $81,148, for a total of $174,683.

Overtime costs this year are expected to top $24 million, Mr. Weitzman said. The sharp increases since 2000 are due in part to a new contract with correction officers. The sheriff’s chief of staff, Mr. O’Connor, said there were major problems in 2000, when a cap on overtime kept costs low but made it difficult to staff the jail properly.

The audit found that a slot for a commissioner of corrections, who would oversee these issues, has gone unfilled for more than four years. Mr. Suozzi said he had not known the job existed until he read the audit.

Mr. Suozzi said that 50 jail officers would be hired in the coming year. He also said that over the next two years, the county would upgrade its outdated, pen-and-paper system of filing and tracking time off and overtime.

”We can do better,” he said. ”There’s no question about that.”

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